Far away at boarding school

Special to The Times

Praia do Rosa, Brazil

I was paddling as fast as I could, my arms on empty as the instructor shouted at me. The roar of the waves was so deafening that I could barely hear him as he yelled, "OK, full power now."

I was already in overdrive, and unless a menacing sea creature appeared behind me, I doubted I could find a higher gear.

"I said full power. Now." Cristiano Vanzelotti, our instructor, yelled even louder as a wave captured me and threw me forward so forcefully that there was no doubt I had caught it.

Clinging tightly to the board, I heard the instructor.

"Get up! Now! Get up!"

Obediently I extended myself into the recently mastered "cobra" position. Against hope I threw myself onto my feet and landed on the board. I mentally braced myself for another plunge in the ocean but was startled to find myself upright.

Technically, I was surfing.

I was riding a wave on the Atlantic Ocean off Praia do Rosa, Brazil, 6,000 miles from my home in Northern California, all because of a Web site for a surf school I stumbled across one afternoon. It welcomed novices and promised perfect weather, warm water, "mushy" waves and helpful instructors.

I have dived in the Galápagos Islands, hiked in Slovakia and climbed a mountain in Ecuador. But I had never ventured into the surf 45 minutes from my house. I was the Frenchman who doesn't enjoy wine, the Italian who can't cook pasta, the German who doesn't obey rules. I was a Californian who didn't surf.

I wanted to remedy the situation, but at 37 I felt too old to join the lineup in Santa Cruz. So, at an age when many of my friends were having their third child, I headed across two continents for the Rosa Surf School on the southeast coast of Brazil, about 500 miles south of Rio de Janeiro.

With a spirit of adventure and new board shorts, I took a flight to Rio, then another to Florianopolis, capital of Santa Catarina state. From there, I took a cab 50 miles south to Praia do Rosa, near the city of Imbituba.

Praia do Rosa is better known for whale watching than for surfing because right whales pass close by on their summer migration.

The sleepy town of low-rise buildings, dirt roads and surf shops has fewer lodging choices and has avoided the bustle of other touristy beach towns because of strict environmental laws.

I checked into a pleasant if no-frills cabana just off the beach in a welcoming, family-run hotel, the Pousada Vida Sol e Mar, which is connected with the surf school. Then I took off for the sands. I expected the beach to be as crowded as an "American Idol" casting call; instead I found a relatively un-touristy curved crescent.

I met my "classmates," seven Englishmen in their mid-30s and all in desperate need of a suntan. Like me, they had ventured to Brazil to learn how to "surf properly." They stared at me quizzically.

"You are from California and you do not surf? Don't you fancy it?" one of them asked politely .

"Yeah, I fancy it a lot." I said defensively. "I just don't live near the beach," I lied.

Like much of my experience in Brazil, the class was unstructured. Brazilians call this jeitinho, a spontaneous make-it-up-as-you-go-along lifestyle. I'd call it disorganization, but I welcomed it. Our day began when we rolled out of bed, ate breakfast and by late morning, walked down to the beach. Then we had to wait for the surfboards to get there. They were carried to the beach by recalcitrant oxen. The boards made it to the beach when the oxen were good and ready to bring them, and nobody minded.

On our first morning we met Vanzelotti, an energetic 24-year-old surfing instructor. He had left his home in nearby Puerto Alegre 10 years ago because the waves there could not compare with the swells of Praia do Rosa. He claimed surfing flowed in his blood and infused his heart and mind.

His enthusiasm inspired us, and we eagerly picked up the basics. We learned how to paddle, how to turn around, how to stand up.

The skills were put to use in the afternoon as we began to ride what Vanzelotti generously called waves. In reality they were more like slowly moving speed bumps. We rode the bulges until sundown. Confidence and sunburn suffused our bodies.

"Not so bad, huh?" I said to Charlie Nixon, the palest of the Englishmen.

"Certainly no sticky wickets out there today, mate," he replied.

The skinny on surfing But the next morning we weren't as confident, suffering not only from sunburn but also board rash on our chests and arms, caused, Vanzelotti explained, by the constant rubbing against the polyurethane board. He gave us a cream called "New Skin," which we applied. It did not work.

That afternoon we left our training ground of foam-filled surf for the real waves up shore. Not since fourth grade with Sister Rozilda had I taken such a beating in class. No surfing took place that day, but it was not from a lack of effort. Shaken and stirred, the Brits and I left the beach with our unbridled optimism replaced by exhausted apprehension. The rigors of the class proved too much for a couple of them. One was lost to a bad case of sunburn, another to caipirinha, the local intoxicating drink of distilled sugar cane and lime. The Brits drank it as if it were tea when they weren't in class.

In the evenings, we wandered the dirt streets of Praia do Rosa. We traded stories about the day's adventure as we ate what real surfers would eat — pizza. I tried Brazilian food — a meal of white rice, black beans, fish and farofel, a hardy root that once was a staple of the Indians — but it wasn't quite to my liking. After one try, I stuck to the town's al fresco restaurants and informal food stands, which featured Italian, Asian and Brazilian fare.

By the third day, we had learned some defensive moves against the relentless surf. We developed the "swan stretch," to ride over the top of an incoming wave; the "turtle roll," to be used when the wave is so big that a surfer must go under it; and the "throw-your-board-to-the-side-and-dive" move for when everything else fails.

If the waves came in just right, if we performed our turtle rolls flawlessly, if the planets were aligned, we would make it out to where the waves were breaking. But predicting where they would break was a skill that eluded us even after three days of instruction. We frantically paddled for waves that never appeared. The effort exhausted us.

Thankfully, Vanzelotti could read the surf and shouted to us, "Start paddling," "Full power" and finally, "Stand up." The last was the hardest to obey. We were expected to spring from a prone position to standing in a move called the "cobra leap." It was not easy, and I failed so often Vanzelotti nicknamed me "Ele mergulhado" — the diver.

By the fourth day, caipirinha had claimed another victim. At water's edge, Vanzelotti inspired his remaining five students with a pep talk. "I have told you what to do. Now you must feel the wave for yourself." He leaned forward and repeated, "Feel it, and ride it."

With only one day of school left, I was desperate to ride a real wave. Never had fun been so much work.

Eventually every one of us stood up and rode our first wave. Mine was a 3-foot-high breaker, and I rode it gleefully until the fins of my surfboard touched the shore.

It may not have been the 50-foot swells of Mavericks in Half Moon Bay or Waimea Bay in Hawaii, but for me it was the perfect wave.

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In sleepy Praia do Rosa, sun, sea and surfers

GETTING THERE:

From LAX, Varig offers connecting flights (change of planes) to Florianopolis. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $807.

TELEPHONES:

To call numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 55 (the country code for Brazil), 48 (the area code) and the local number.

WHERE TO STAY:

Pousada Vida Sol e Mar, Praia do Rosa, Imbi- tuba, Santa Catarina; 355-6111, http://www.vidasolemar.com.br . I loved this hotel, which is also affiliated with the Rosa Surf School. It has a swimming pool and 28 units, and each unit contains a telephone, television, refrigerator, fan and a deck with a hammock, a ubiquitous sight in Brazil. Doubles, $46 to $105.

Morada dos Bougainvilles, Caminho do Alto do Morro, Praia do Rosa, Imbituba, Santa Catarina; 355-6100, http://www.pousadabougainville.com.br (in Portuguese). Seven air-conditioned suites with TV, fridge and fireplace. It has a bar, swimming pool and an excellent Italian restaurant on the premises. Doubles, $50 to $100, including breakfast and dinner.

The Rosebud, Praia do Rosa, Imbituba, Santa Catarina; 355-6101, http://www.therosebud.com.br . Suites have a TV, refrigerator and balconies with views of the ocean. It also has a swimming pool and playroom. Two-person cabanas, $35 to $55.

WHERE TO EAT:

Aquarius Restaurant, Estrada Geral do Rosa; 355-6039. Locals dine at this restaurant, which serves traditional Brazilian dishes. Buffet is less than $3; menu items, $6.

Margherita's, Caminho do Morro; 355-6010. This is a popular Italian restaurant for good reason: It serves the best pizza in town for $8. Fish and steak dinners, $9.

Tigre Asiático, Estrada Geral do Rosa; 354-0170. This is a more formal restaurant than others in town. It features Thai, Indonesian and Japanese cuisine. Entrees, $7 to $13.

SURFING SCHOOL:

Rosa Surf School, Praia do Rosa, Imbituba, Santa Catarina; 355-6111, http://www.vidasolemar.com.br . This is one of the only surfing schools in the area, and I found its instructors to be experienced and patient. Private lessons, $16 an hour including surfboard rentals, or $43 for three classes. If you're not taking a class, surfboard rentals are $3 an hour.

TO LEARN MORE:

Brazilian Tourism Office, Brazilian Embassy, 3006 Massachusetts Ave. N.W., Washington, DC 20008; (800) 727-2945, http://www.braziltourism.org .

Brazilian Consulate Trade Center, Tourist Information, 8484 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 711, Beverly Hills, CA 90211; (323) 651-2664, http://www.embratur.gov.br .

— Sig Mejdal

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